Serpent Blog

The White Bird 
I want to tell you about something that happened this Sunday past. I had myself a day of strange encounters with animals. I want to tell you about one of them.

I was on a deserted beach at Point Reyes. I hiked in two miles from the road and had just emerged from the dunes. I stood before the roaring ocean and a fierce onshore wind. I looked to my left and saw some interesting flotsam, mostly washed up trees. I looked to my right and saw nothing but blowing sand. Which way would I go? I didn’t know.

Then something caught my eye to my right. I could see it as a blaze of glaring white, a glowing spot on the sand. There were ravens circling above it. That’s how I discovered it, I followed the ravens. I saw the ravens long before I saw what they were after. They flew right past me, just above me, and flying into a terrific headwind. If I had wanted I could have reached up and plucked them out of the air, they were that low. Where there are ravens going I almost always follow.

I wanted to know what the ravens had found because they are keen-eyed birds drawn to the curious; as humans are. The wind was blowing a good 20 knots off the ocean and the air was a storm of flying sand. I could hardly see without my arm there before my eyes to shield them.

I could see the ravens now as black specs, wheeling above a spot on the sand a thousand yards away where it seemed a star had fallen, an object of great brilliance. I saw there were vultures too. This was awhile back. I spotted the vultures before I spotted the ravens so I knew there was a carcass somewhere, and on such a lonely beach as this one I knew it had to be a seal. But now there was a white thing on the beach and beside the white thing was a black thing and I knew what that was. I didn’t know what the white thing might be but as I drew closer I understood it was a bird, but I had never seen a bird like this before. There was something strange about it. The shape. of it. And it was so white it hurt my eyes to see.

The ravens were pecking at the bird; which I took for dead but when I got close I could see it wasn’t so. The bird lived. I shooed the ravens off but they did not yield right away so I spoke to them in that voice you take on when you talk seriously to a dog who forgets his place and has to be reminded who’s boss. The ravens heeded that tone and they flew off but not too far, for like I said they’re curious creatures and they wanted to see what I would do.

When I turned I saw the whiteness for what it was, a herring gull, and about the whitest I’ve ever seen. It was on its back and both of its wings were bent back and folded under it in a manner that was almost funny. The wind was incredibly strong off the sea and I figured the bird got knocked down by it and flipped over somehow. He was all tangled up in himself and about as flummoxed as an upside-down tortoise. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t right himself but I waited to see what he would do now that the ravens were gone. He flapped around pathetically. Broken wing for sure. So I went up to the high water line and found myself a long stick. When I got close I could smell the seal carcass, it was a big one, and it had been picked almost clean to the bones by the birds. The gull panicked when I got near him and it tried to scurry but it was no use, it could hardly move but in a circle, using its one good wing as sort of an oar in the soft sand. It was doomed. I don’t know why I didn’t take out my camera. It would have been an interesting shot. But I didn’t. Instead, I soothed the bird with another kind of voice I used to use on the dog. I whispered to him and told him I wouldn’t hurt him and I approached real slow and got down beside him and flipped him over neatly with the end of my stick. He popped up and waddled off and then he tried to fly but the wind was too strong and he was grounded. He kept leaping into the air, as was his right, but the wind and his wing would not give him his privilege. The bird could not fly.

Later on I found him in the dunes. He was hunkered in the lee of a small mound of grass. One of his wings hung down oddly at his side. I wondered if he would live through the night. I had seen plenty of coyote sign on the long hike in to Abbott’s Lagoon and I figured they hunted the high water line of the beach at night for carrion. Maybe this big white bird would make it. I don’t know. For the moment it was safe from the terrible beaks of the ravens. As much as I love and respect those black birds it is the free-wheeling gull I think I admire even more. I came of age in the 1970’s when a certain little book about a seagull sat on my mother’s coffee table and captured my imagination. I can still see the cover in my mind’s eye. I see a bird in flight, soaring, with its wings outstretched. The silhouette is glaring white. I never did read it but I know what it’s all about. That book, and that image is tattooed on my mind’s eye.

I believe that there are no such things as accidents. I arrived on that beach last Sunday morning as if borne by a magic carpet. Call me a fool, but I believe in signs and omens and the spirits of the dead. I believe that animals can talk to men and that trees have souls and that the earth can grow a certain flower for the pleasure of my eyes alone. What I find on my path was placed there by forces I don’t need to understand. This life can be a wonder and a terror both, but mostly it is a wonder.

One thing I did that morning was to crawl around on my hands and knees on that beach, to pick out the tiny polished stones exposed by the blowing sand. They were shiny like the eyes of a bird and and I found them in all varieties of color, most of them no larger than the nail of my thumb. I filled my pockets with pebbles, as smooth as if they came right out of a rock tumbler. I like to think about the age of rocks and how far they’ve travelled. I like the way certain stones feel in the palm of my hand. I like that no two are alike. But I think what I like most about finding buried stones is that most likely I am the only human being to have ever held them and then, if I hurl them into a pond or take them back home for my collections, the only one who ever will.

The herring gull whose life intersected with my own that morning was watching me as I did this. He kept his distance as I picked through the stones, and I found myself talking to him, telling him he’d be alright if he just rested awhile and that I wasn’t going to hurt him - the kinds of things a child might say to a stray dog. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I don’t know what it means. Probably nothing at all. Probably we look for meaning in personal incidents and unexplained events because we need to feel like there’s a reason for our confusion, for our living and for our being. Maybe I am the most primitive kind of man. The older I get the more childlike I become. I want to believe there are no coincidences. I have to. I know from first hand experience that there are forces at work beyond what we experience with our senses and with our rational minds.

Every time I go to the beach I arrive home with a pocket full of shells and stones. Little shards of glass polished by the action of sand and wave. Small pieces of wood worn smooth and streamlined. Bone, bleached by sun and rain. Why do I take these things? Why do I treasure them? Why does the seagull matter?

A truly singular, individual experience is rare in 2010. Today, everything is shared. But to be alone and to touch the universe is something that cannot be Facebooked, text messaged or Twittered. A connection with the infinite just does not convey. And I want that again. I yearn to see and think and feel what *I* feel and to derive meaning and affirmation in my own way and on my own time. I no longer want instant anything. My mind has been neutered and my soul cheated. Of true experience. In real time. In no time. And alone, or with one good friend whose face I can see off the page of some remote electronic book.

The seagull was real. The carcass of the sea lion was real. The ravens were real. The blowing sand was real. This is magic. Sand, wind, life, death, tides. This is magic. Now I know why I left Facebook. And if you’re reading this, so do you.

Thank you Jonathan Livingston Seagull.


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Books. Give me *books*. 
The novel is the only thing that really matters to me. The book. It's the only thing that makes a difference, the only thing that makes a lasting dent. A novel burrows and inhabits. It's a thing I can hold in my hands. Pages. Text printed on paper. To see the whole before it is consumed. That's another thing that sets it apart. To see it. To feel its weight and measure its thicknesses.

Books do things to me. Like nature. Like weather. They surprise me by showing me myself in new but familiar forms. The novel, the right novel already exists in my head before I ever open it. It's just been waiting for me. The books that I read and the books that I hope to write are patiently waiting, Reading them, or writing them, simply reveals the details of what I already seem to know but have not yet articulated.

A novel is a miracle. Born in another time within another human's heart, a stranger's heart , unfolds inside my own, in my present. A single human being enters another. Intimacy without knowing. A faceless form of love. A code exchanged across space and time wakens neurons, fires, neurons, creates images, feelings - good God, the feeling of it, the way a book makes you feel. That subtle tickle in the back of the lower part of your throat, like a contraction, the choking part of 'choking-up', the waves and the vibrations, the rising joys, the shivers of revelation, how your body just hums, sometimes, how it physically reacts to sudden and unexpected understandings, recognitions of something lost and buried being slowly revealed. A film does not do this. Not as personally, not as intimately. A painting does not do this. You have to work harder to see yourself in a painting. But novels seep into all my crevices. A novel is a liquid that fills the empty spaces and conforms to the shape of its container. The container is myself.

In a sense a book is a container and a story is water being poured from one vessel into another. From one body into another. A book is a bottomless vessel. One copy of To Kill a Mockingbird can fill a million little cups across ages. Is a writer then a bartender? A chef? A chemist? No, an alchemist, transmuting souls. Great novels transmute me, transform me, transcend me. There is nothing else like a novel. The only other art form that comes close is the song. Music does this. But I cannot write music so I write words. A paragraph is a song. Great novels sing. They well up like Negro spirituals. I can feel them in my bowels, in my bones. They get inside me because they come from inside me. I am always the focal character. I am Madame Bovary and Holden Caulfield. This is not a simile. I am not like them. I am them. This is what really separates novels from movies, from music. I never feel that I become the person on film. There's always a separation, a wall. I don't see me there and I don't feel me there. I may have empathy and sympathy but I am never them. We never blend. But in a book I am that person, and sometimes many people. This is occurring at a subconscious level. We are contained within the container. We hold ourselves in our own hands. We are connected.

I need to carry my books wherever I go. I want them to get wet and dirty and bent and scuffed. When I am finished I want them to know that they've been read. I like my books like I like my people - beaten and worn. Damaged. There's no such thing as a digital book. Words can be digitized, books cannot. A book is more than words. Books have souls. Even different copies of the same book are unique.

If story does not occupy physical space, if it does not have volume and texture and smell and a sound then I find that it is lacking something vital. A cover; which is a door. A title page; which is a curtain. A typeface; which is a secrete code through which I absorb and discover, a certain paper stock - the emulsified pulp of living things, a tree. A book is a resurrection. There is poetry in this that justifies the death of the tree.

I know trees. Trees will willingly give their lives for great books. It is an honor to them. Whole groves should be grown specifically for this purpose. I see now in my mind's eye, an eye created by 40 years of reading, a father planting an orchard at the birth of his son, who will grow up to write a great novel to be printed on the very paper milled from that grove. I see that boy wandering his orchard, touching his sacrificial trees, speaking to them, whispering to them like a toreador worshiping his bulls. The sound that the wind makes in their branches is a language only he can understand. The power and magic that is contained in real books originates in trees. Trees are the elusive philosopher's stone in this mystery equation. It takes a tree to make a book. For a book to have its power lives must be lost.

Novels grow on paper like fungus grows on the bark of dying oaks. New life is fertilized with corpses. Every book should be a resurrection. And that is what I feel when I hold a real book, a great book, like Shadow of the Wind or Cold Mountain, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Sun Also Rises. Something died to bring those stories to me, and I must feel the weight of those deaths and treasure them, like the mummies of the pharaohs. I must worship them, dust them, keep them clean, open them from time to time to read random passages. Every great book is a funeral and a celebration.

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An Apology and an Oversght 
I apologize to Shelby Lee Adams for posting his photograph, Boy with Serpent Box and Poison Jar, without his permission. Copyright is the only protection an artist has and it should be taken seriously. I did not do that. I wish to express my regret for this oversight. It was not my intention to offend the subject in this photograph nor to exploit Mr. Adams.

I will be taking down the photograph in question as soon as I can contact my webmaster. I have already removed another copy of it from my blog on which I included a caption which the subject may have found offensive. For that I am also sorry.

I tried to write Serpent Box with respect and dignity toward the Pentecostal movement that inspired it. I have tried to portray Holiness people as God-loving, spiritual human beings. I have heard from several Holiness people who have read the novel, and they have told me that I did in fact succeed in doing so. But Serpent Box is a work of fiction. It is not based on any real people, and is not meant to be a documentary about snake handlers. That being said, I was moved by Mr. Adams' photos. His incredible book, Appalachian Portraits (which was ironically stolen from me) introduced me to these people, whose faith in God and Jesus infected me, and provided me with the impetus to re-discover God in my own life. I am truly grateful to him and to his subjects.


It has also been brought to my attention that certain photographs on the site should be credited to Russell Lee with appropriate copyrights attributed to him. These I got from the National Archives and at the time did not see such a credit nor was I aware of the Commons Licensing requirements. This will be corrected shortly.

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The Past Matters and the Future is a Scam: The Wisdom of Carl Jung 
I have been struggling to articulate this for years. I could write a thousand blogs and not come close to what Jung says so eloquently here. Take heed, ye children of Facebook, Twitter, iPhone and Blackberry, we are killing our ancient souls…

“Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components. Body and soul therefore have an intensely historical character and find no proper place in what is new, in things that have just come into being…we are very far from having finished completely with the Middle Ages, classical antiquity, and primitivity, are our modern psyches pretend. Nevertheless, we have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots. Once the past has been breached, it is usually annihilated, and there is no stopping the forward motion. But it is precisely the lost of connection with the past, our uprootedness, which has given rise to the “discontents” of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future and its chimerical promises of a golden age than in the present, with which our whole evolutionary background has not caught up. We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction and restlessness. We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise. We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us. The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves, and thus we help with all our might to rob the individual of his roots and guiding instincts, so that he becomes a particle in the mass, ruled only by what Nietzsche called the spirit of gravity.
Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before. Omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli est – all haste is of the devil, as the old masters used to say.”

Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1961

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The Upside-Down Man 
The street was crowded with us. We, the workers, the commuters. We were on our way home from jobs. Home from jobs. I was among them. It was Friday, this past Friday, and the collective thought of us all was the Friday thought – a weekend. Home.

A throng of us was approaching the corner of Battery and Bush when I saw a man who was upside-down. This didn’t seem at all strange to me. The man was standing on his head on the busy street corner surrounded by us - the suits and cellphone set. The light was against us so we waited for it to change. The upside-down man, I noticed, was not resting the entire weight of his upended body on the pavement, on his head, but was resting his head on a sort of plate or dish that has a narrow base or foot. It was clearly a device of his own making. The crown of his head fit perfectly into the cup of this wooden stand.

I stood less than six inches from him. He had before him a clear plastic cup with money in it. One of his legs was folded, his knee bent and crossed over his other leg, like some sort of yogi or mystic, as I have imagined so often in my fantasies of India. We made eye contact. I could see that his eyes were bloodshot and very wet. I could see the struggle in him, the effort it required to maintain a stable posture, upside-down, on a busy street corner, with traffic quite literally inches away from him. He looked at me and I at him. In that moment we had met.

I spoke. I said: If I had any money on me I’d drop it in your cup. He smiled. He said: That’s alright. We have this. We have this connection. Then I said something I still cannot explain. I said: If I could, I’d make myself small and jump into your cup. I have no idea why I said that or where it came from. But the upside-down man, whoever he was, smiled again. He looked at me. He looked at me with the eyes of knowing, a look you can only feel from strangers who are not strangers at all but who you have somehow always been known. He said to me: You’re already there. You’re already in my cup.

This transaction (and I consider it a transaction because an exchange occurred, an exchange of love) lasted no more than 30 seconds. The amount of time it takes to deliver to me an advertisement for a brand of soup. Yet, it stayed with me. The upside-down man and his cup.


On Sunday morning I went owl-hunting. I needed an owl. There is really no way you can understand this. My need for an owl. Upon the advice of a dear yet very new friend, I took a solo hike into Tennessee Valley in Marin.

It was a cold and gray morning but that meant that the trail would be quiet and empty. Armed with my Moleskine notebook, a pocket volume of collected Rilke writings and a digital recorder, I set off to find my owl, and then, to the sea.

As is usually the case, an unexpected chain of events led me to my quarry. I saw a deer. It was a lone doe, feeding on a ridge above the main trail. I left the fire road and followed her up a steep trail. In the distance, hidden behind a large Monterey Cypress, I saw a boulder that was completely ensconced in an ancient tree stump. I moved toward this stump, knowing that I must see it, touch it, photograph it. I was walking carefully through the thick undergrowth when I spied the remnants of what appeared to be a large lozenge of hair on the ground. An owl pellet. I knelt in the dried grass. I pushed the pellet with a twig and it fell apart, revealing its treasure of tiny bones. I soon found more pellets. I looked up an discovered I was directly under a cypress tree. Horned owls love Monterey Cypress trees.

I promised myself that once I was done exploring my old stump, I’d go back to the tree to look for the owl.I photographed my stump. It was beautiful. About as big as a hot tub and completely hollow. Then I went back to the tree. I looked through the grass and found more pellets and also a large guano spatter pattern. The owl spent a lot of time above this spot. If I was lucky he’d be there now. I stepped back a few yards and looked up. There he was. A Great Horned Owl. My heart jumped. It would be difficult to describe to you what owls mean to me. They are my spirit guides. My totem animal. And when I see one I am usually at some kind of crossroads in my life. It had been over a year since I last saw one in the wild and I am indeed at a major crossroads.

I photographed the owl and I spoke to it. I will not tell you what I said. That was between myself and the owl. But I’ll give you a hint. What I say to owls is similar what I say to God. Help me. Grant my strength. And since I am lacking in what the owl has an abundance of, namely sight and hearing, I ask for a little of that too.

I left the owl and walked to the sea. The rhythmic crashing of the ocean resets my soul-clock. I just need to be near it. 15 minutes by the water’s edge does more for me than any therapy session. Hawks, vultures, a rabbit, the owl. I found a tree branch where a buck had been rubbing its antlers. I spoke to a raven. And I read from Rilke to the very sea itself. Rilke. How can I explain how this man and his hundred-year-old words has saved me? Time and time again.

I think about the upside-down man and how he invited me to enter his little cup. I think about how I have been an upside-down man. I think about the owl and the hare and the raven and the deer. God is everywhere and in every thing. And He is not a silent God. It is I who can so often be deaf. Blind. Noisy. Be like the owl, He tells me. And go quiet into your night.

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